Intergenerational mobility in education

Intergenerational immobility of income has been one of the most persistent reasons of social inequality. For instance, see the Opportunity Atlas of the US by Raj Chetty and colleagues for how strongly income and education levels depend on parents’ income.

Parents’ education level, not separable from their income, is another significant factor affecting educational attainment and the dynamics of human capital. Very simply speaking, the higher the education level of their parents, the more successful the students are academically. Sociologists have developed theories for decades about the reasons for this phenomenon beyond financial means. For instance, the language codes used by different social classes, or the parents’ interest in their children’s education are potential explanations.

Regardless of the reasons, country-level data shows the striking intergenerational immobility in education. OECD statistics report the educational attainment of children who are born to parents with no tertiary education and with tertirary education. Below, I visualize this data for 31 countries collected either in 2012 or 2015. The left pane are for parents of which at least one has tertiary education, and the right pane is for parents with below tertiary degrees. The x-axes show the percentage of children who obtain less than tertiary education, and the y-axis show the percentage of children who obtain type-A tertiary education or higher. The bigger the dots, the higher the GDP per capita. It is striking that all countries cluster in the upper left or bottom right corner! Majority of children born to parents with tertiary education obtain tertiary degrees, too. Majority of children born to parents with below tertiary degrees end up with less than tertiary education. Therefore, intergenerational mobility is highly limited.

Below is another way to look at this data for a few countries I chose. For instance in Austria, if both parents have less than tertiary education, 84% of this group’s children have less than tertiary education, too. 6% of them attain a degree from a tertiary-B type institution, such as vocational schools, and only 10% make it to a bachelors or a higher academic degree. If at least one parent has attained tertiary education, the percentage of university graduate children goes up to 32% from 10%.

sibel eker intergenerational